At a recent Q&A following an advance screening of the riotous comedy “Superbad,” a woman in the audience asked the film’s producer Judd Apatow if he makes “romantic comedies for men.”
“That sounds like product — or a lube,” replied the 39-year-old filmmaker.
Apatow, the director of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and the new “Knocked Up,” acknowledged such a label wasn’t far off the mark, but said he doesn’t think much about categorizing what he does. Besides, he said, “Isn’t there love in every movie?”
A classification like “romantic comedies for men” also doesn’t do justice to other staples of Apatow’s work — namely, an endless barrage of filthy jokes, cleverly delivered. And yet Apatow’s comedy always maintains — as Seth Rogen, the star of “Knocked Up” and a frequent collaborator of Apatow’s, says — an “oddly sweet” quality.
Thanks to the huge success of 2005’s “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” Apatow has broken through to the mainstream after a career that has spanned contributions to some of the most critically acclaimed comedies of the past 15 years — from “The Ben Stiller Show” to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
With the Friday release of the eagerly awaited “Knocked Up,” it’s clear he’s become a behind-the-scenes ringleader to a thriving era of comedy that revels in mixing the dumb with the smart, the bawdy with the sincere.
“I’m trying to figure out how to get gigantic laughs without losing my reality level,” the wry, bearded Apatow explained over lunch at a recent interview in New York. “That’s always the dance.”
Even as a teenager, Apatow was at the center of comedy.
For his high-school radio show on Long Island in the mid-‘80s, he managed to interview Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern, the original writers of “Saturday Night Live” and many others.
“I really met EVERYBODY over the course of two years,” Apatow recalls. “I would just ask them how they did it. It was an excuse to spend an hour asking: How do you write a joke?”
Apatow later moved West to study screenwriting at USC, where he dropped out within two years thanks, in part, to a free trip won on “The Dating Game” — a comic twist in Apatow’s biography worthy of one of his films.
As a struggling standup, he lived with Adam Sandler and began writing jokes for other comedians, eventually writing for Roseanne Barr. His first and only attempt to work in front of the camera was quickly scuttled after a trip to an acting coach.
“It was the worst acting anyone has ever done,” says Apatow. “At that moment, the dream of comedian becoming actor died. I folded my cards immediately.”
Rejections by “Saturday Night Live” and “In Living Color” followed, but then he met Ben Stiller. Apatow executive-produced “The Ben Stiller Show” (1992), the short-lived but acclaimed Fox sketch show that spawned the careers of a myriad of comedians, including Stiller, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk and Andy Dick.
“In a lot of ways, that’s where everything started,” says Apatow. “People connect the dots and see all the people I’ve worked with, but really, it all comes from Stiller.”
He then wrote for five years on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” eventually becoming an executive producer. The show’s star, Garry Shandling remains a mentor.
Mix of humor, realismLike the dialogue of “Knocked Up,” Apatow’s speech is riddled with pop-culture references. He grew up obsessed with the Marx Brothers and Steve Martin, watched Woody Allen films endlessly, considers Harold Ramis’ movies (“Caddyshack,” “Groundhog Day”) “a gigantic influence” and found inspiration in the mix of humor and realism in films like “Terms of Endearment” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
To Apatow, his greatest achievement is “Freaks and Geeks,” the beloved cult favorite hour-long TV series that ran for only one season in 1999-2000. The show, created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Apatow, was followed by another acclaimed but canceled series: “Undeclared.”
“In a way, the movies are an extension of those TV shows,” says Apatow. “Some people have been saying, ‘Do you feel like the reason these movies (“Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) are doing OK is because your work is getting better?’ And I’m always like, ‘No, I don’t think I’ll ever make anything as good as “Freaks and Geeks.“”’
The lack of commercial success on the small screen led Apatow to concentrate on producing film projects, including a number of Will Ferrell films: “Anchorman,” “Kicking and Screaming” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky and Bobby.”
“He obviously has this unique talent of someone who can make what would probably be classified as a broad comedy, but yet he’s finding ways to deal with these real issues that we all face,” says Ferrell. “He’s tackling them in ways we haven’t seen before.”
The box-office success of “Anchorman” helped Apatow get backing for “Virgin,” his directorial debut, which he co-wrote with Steve Carell.
“It gave me a career path,” he says. “The beginning of my career was mainly about helping my friends execute their ideas, which was really fun but it wasn’t based on my personal point of view.”
“Knocked Up,” also written by Apatow, is very personal for him. Though the film — in which Rogen plays an immature pothead who has parenthood thrust upon him after a one-night stand with a far more professional woman (Katherine Heigl) — isn’t directly autobiographical, the issues of facing adulthood are familiar to the director.
Further, much of Apatow’s life can be seen on screen. His wife, actress Leslie Mann, co-stars; their two young daughters play her character’s children; Ramis symbolically plays a wise father to Rogen; and a good number of the actors from his past TV shows and movies have notable parts or make cameos.
Mann, whom Apatow met while working on the Jim Carrey movie “The Cable Guy,” says that while everything in “Knocked Up” has been reflected against a “funhouse mirror,” much of it is culled from their relationship. For example, the scene where Allison (Heigl) boots Ben (Rogen) from the car while driving to the gynecologist was taken directly from an argument of theirs.
Frequently working with his close-knit troupe of friends and actors, Apatow’s style is heavy on improvisation and collaboration. The famous “You know why I know you’re gay?” running bit in “Virgin” was improvised, and “Knocked Up” provides a similar gag based on a setup of “You look like...” to describe an extremely hairy character (Martin Starr).
A recently released two-disc DVD edition of “Virgin” includes footage of Apatow relentlessly shouting new lines to his actors as they riff their way through a scene — a method he calls “rewriting while the cameras are rolling.” Apatow also holds numerous screenings of early cuts of his films for filmmaker friends in hopes of garnering feedback.
“What really sets him apart is just how collaborative he is, and how confident in yourself you have to be in order to be collaborative and take ideas from your actors and your friends,” says Rogen, who was a teenager when Apatow cast him in “Freaks and Geeks.”
Film will need word-of-mouth“Knocked Up,” which was completed in February, arrives in theaters on a sizable wave of buzz, aided by very early screenings to critics and press. As a relatively low-budget film starring the little-known Rogen, it’s a film that needs substantial word-of-mouth to compete with summer blockbusters.
The low-cost, laugh-heavy approach has proven appealing to studios; “Virgin” grossed $109 million at the box office on a production budget of $26 million. “Knocked Up,” rated-R like “Virgin,” is also in the same budget range and was well received by Universal Pictures, Apatow says.
“They may have just been happy that I didn’t ask for triple the budget and robots,” he deadpans.
Another key to his success is that he’s largely been able to keep creative control of his films. Mann says he passed on numerous films before making “Virgin.” Now, after years of unsold scripts pilling up, Apatow’s projects are getting the green light.
Besides “Superbad,” this year will also see the release of another Apatow production, “The Pineapple Express,” which was written by Rogen. Next year will be “Walk Hard,” a mock biopic in the style of “Ray” starring John C. Reilly and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” which Apatow co-wrote with Sandler.
“It’s almost more than a Jew from Long Island can handle,” Apatow says of his good fortune. “All my assumptions about myself are confused when people like the work. On some level, it’s almost more comfortable for it to go the other way.”